On Saturday 2 December 1775, during the Siege of Boston, British soldiers sought to entertain themselves with a production of The Tragedy of Zara. The play was performed at Faneuil Hall, and the proceeds were "apply'd to the Benefit of the Widows and Children of the Soldiers." This broadside advertisement for the play is of interest not only for the unusual circumstances under which it was performed--by the officers of the besieged British army during the opening phase of the American Revolution--but also because only the British occupation allowed a theatrical performance to take place; plays had long been banned in Puritan Boston.
Written by Aaron Hill in 1735, Zara is an adaptation of Voltaire's Zaïre. In Zaïre, the Sultan of Turkey, Osman, holds two Christian slaves, Zara and her brother Nerestan. Zara and the Sultan fall in love, but in a fit of jealous rage and misunderstanding, he kills her. Once he realizes his mistake, the Sultan orders the release of all Christian slaves, and then kills himself. In addition to the broadside, the Massachusetts Historical Society also holds a manuscript prologue to Zara, written by General John Burgoyne. The manuscript "Prologue for Opening the Theatre at Boston when it was garrisoned by the British Troops under Command of Sir Wm. Howe" (see the online display of the manuscript prologue) may be in the hand of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, a young British officer serving in Boston, who is said to have read the prologue. The stage directions read "Curtain Rises & discovers Zara & Selima," and indicate that this version may have been read at the Boston performance.
After the start of the Revolution at Concord and Lexington in April 1775, the British held Boston under siege until March of the following year. In May of 1775 John Burgoyne arrived with British reinforcements under General William Howe. Burgoyne witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, but complained about his lack of activity (see Burgoyne's account of the battle).
Better known as an author and gambler than as a soldier, Burgoyne later would command an invasion force from Canada, but he was forced to surrender to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga in October 1777. His military career was ruined, but Burgoyne enjoyed much success as a playwright and author.
Francis Rawdon-Hastings, later Lord Moira and the Marquess Hastings, was only twenty-one years old at the time of the performance, but six years of active campaigning all along the Eastern seaboard during the American Revolution prepared him for a brilliant career during the Napoleonic Wars and then in India thirty years later.